Tuesday, September 29, 2009

God's Sufficient Grace

"[God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me.... For when I am weak, then I am strong" (2 Cor. 12:9-10, NIV).

"Sufficient" is almost a dirty word today. Try posting in a chat room that "$50,000 a year per person is enough for any household; those who earn more should give the rest away"--and brace yourself for a firestorm of "You must be crazy" responses. Nobody really wants to believe that wealth and success cause more problems than they solve, that average achievement is good enough, that constant striving for "better things" is bad news waiting to happen. At least, no one really wants to believe that these principles apply to them. No matter how many people prove by example that there's no such thing as "enough wealth/success/popularity to make you happy," the vast majority of humanity remains certain of being the exception to the rule.

Such a "more for me" attitude is a widespread manifestation of the self-centeredness that equals pride--and no one is saying much against it. God calls pride of heart detestable (cf. Prov. 16:5); we call it a virtue. While we still detest the blatantly arrogant, we chide the self-deprecating soul to "have more faith in yourself," and we become indignant if someone suggests that "thinking our way to success" is a selfish idea.

Paul, who saw more than the average number of ups and downs in his lifetime, knew better. He was so confident that God's grace--God's constant presence, support, and forgiveness--was the only thing needed to meet all his needs, that he actually was grateful for his inabilities and hard times. His problems helped keep him humble, after all; and only the humble experience God's grace to the full.

The next time you're about to pray for relief from a problem, why not start by thanking God in advance for whatever He's going to do through it? He may not show us His real purpose for years--perhaps not even in this life--but we can be confident that in His never-failing grace He is always up to something good.

When the weight you carry seems too much to bear,
When you see no answer to your desperate prayer,
When your life seems haunted by unceasing pain--
Trust God has a purpose and will make it plain.

Trust in God's sufficient grace,
Flowing from Heaven when we are weak,
Building His strength in us,
Perfecting His power as His face we seek.

When your will is failing fast beneath a test,
That is when the Spirit's strength is at its best;
When you have no basis left for human pride,
You are at your strongest through God's power inside.

Trust in God's sufficient grace,
Flowing from Heaven when we are weak,
Building His strength in us,
Perfecting His power as His face we seek.

Do not fret and worry when your strength is small;
Do not curse your weakness--God ordains it all;
Take your trials in gladness as His gift of love;
Strength is found in weakness through His power above.

Trust in God's sufficient grace,
Flowing from Heaven when we are weak,
Building His strength in us,
Perfecting His power as His face we seek.

Monday, September 21, 2009

God Has Great Blessings in Store for Us

"The trouble with opportunity," says an old quote, "is that it always comes disguised as hard work." The Christian equivalent of that principle is: The trouble with many of God's blessings is that He rarely bestows them in the absence of any action on our part. Not, of course, that even the laziest among us don't enjoy such blessings as air and water (cf. Mt. 5:44-45), nor that the most diligent of us can do anything to earn God's favor; nor, for that matter, that those who seem to be experiencing few blessings are always "lazy" by the normal definition of the word. Workaholics who put in seventy-hour weeks three times a month are as likely as anybody to be whining that their lives are miserable and God isn't doing a thing about it.

Usually what we want Him to do about it is to make things perfect according to our own definitions, to get rid of all frustration and fill our lives with prosperity and happiness--preferably with minimal effort on our part. And we let this shallow dream of "the good life" so fill our vision that we blind ourselves to the far greater vision God wants to give us: a lifelong experience of the incredible excitement, joy, and security that comes only with total submission to our Lord's will. Therein lies the true action we have to take to realize God's greatest blessings: an active submission that not only does whatever He asks of us, instantly without argument or question, but that fills the time between obvious "marching orders" with prayer and Bible study and an ongoing determination to know Him better at all costs.

No, doing this doesn't mean we'll always get the blessings we want. It does mean we'll get the real blessings--the ones God most wants to give us.

God has great blessings in store for us,
And He brings new gifts each day;
And new joys will spawn with each rising dawn
If we eagerly seek His way.
But if we grumble to see the sun,
If we long to sleep some more,
If we dote on rest, we will miss the best
Of the riches He holds in store.

God has great blessings in store for us,
And He longs each life to fill,
And the joy we ask will flow through each task
When we eagerly do His will.
But if we grumble our way through work
And despise all labor brings,
If we live for ease, and ourselves to please,
We reject such amazing things!

God has great blessings in store for us;
And the thankful, humble heart
Will rejoice each day to pursue His way,
And be eager His work to start.
But those who grumble because they want
To take charge of life in whole,
Only rob their days of God's glorious praise
That brings joy to each faithful soul!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Come Aside

I recently started a program of regular fasting--not from food but from an aspect of life where I have an even worse "can't stand to do without it" idolatry problem. Sunday mornings and every fourth Friday are now times for fasting from information input: no reading except the Bible, no computer time, no telephone, no forms of media except Christian music. I have some maturing to do before I can look forward to these "fast periods" with joy; often, the evening immediately preceding is marked by a pervasive dread of being bored to death.

Most of us are effectively terrified of stillness and silence. When we cram our brains with outside input in the manner of soldiers throwing up a defense barricade, when we attack our daily duties with all-out fight-or-flight adrenalin, is it all due to fear of falling behind or seeming lazy? Or are we, somewhere on the semiconscious level, afraid that God's "still small Voice" will get through and tell us to go the last place we want to go, to do the last thing we want to do, to give up forever something we doubt we could live without? Many a person shrinks from medical exams as though they somehow caused life-threatening illness; the spiritual equivalent is convincing ourselves that ignoring God will save us from both the pain of following His instructions and the sin of defying Him outright. But just as a treatable medical condition may grow into a lethal one while someone continues to pretend it can't be there, "protecting" ourselves from God's input will only free our spiritual problems to grow steadily worse.

Better to take periodic, even indefinite, breaks from earthly loves on our own volition, than to let them grow to the point where they endanger our very souls. It's not a pleasant experience when God forcibly rips something away for our own good.

The world is a rush of flash and noise,
From traffic to buzzing phone,
And everyone clamoring for your ear,
And high shortage of time alone.
If you want to rest from the endless din,
And listen to God's soft Voice,
You must come aside through your own free will,
Your own effort and your own choice.

The mind quickly fills with flash and noise,
And hummings of idle thought,
And worries and fears and the daily rush,
And the duties that life has brought.
If you want to shut out the endless din,
And hear when God speaks to you,
You must still your thoughts through your own free will,
And trust Him to direct you true.

The mad din of the world is bad enough,
But when it invades the brain
Through its endless siege, then the din within
Is still louder in its refrain.
And it is hard work to find time for rest:
But if you would do God's will,
You must trust that He will give you His strength
So your soul may at last be still!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Not for Our Own Righteous Living

"The Law of Attraction" has entered the lexicon of phrases that everyone recognizes and many treat like a creed. At its most extreme, the concept regards positive thinking as magic and human beings as gods. That in terms of the general population, the confident and cheerful are healthier and more accomplished than brooding pessimists is hard to deny; that you must therefore bring on yourself literally everything that happens to you seems a bit of a leap in logic. Nonetheless, the idea has its own attraction, especially for people who have never suffered any real tragedy and like to think themselves safe as long as they keep thinking positive. If Job were alive today, his "comforters," rather than assuming he was being punished for some active evil, might well seize on his statement that "What I feared has come upon me; what I dreaded has happened to me" (Job 3:25, NIV) and tell him that it only happened because he dreaded it.

It isn't only neopagans--those who believe that all physical aspects of the universe, including us, are simply manifestations of one central energy source--who think in these terms. Many people push the same idea in Christian dress: didn't Jesus Himself say many times, "Your faith has healed you" (e. g., Mt. 9:22); didn't He say that faith could move mountains (Mt. 21:21); and isn't it true that the reason He performed few miracles in Nazareth was "their lack of faith" (Mt. 13:58)? So doesn't it logically follow that a lack of faith can block God from doing the good He wants to do for us?

Well, no, it really doesn't, unless we throw out much of the rest of Scripture. If God "can do all things [and] no plan of [His] can be thwarted" (Job 42:2); if "nothing is impossible with God" (Lk. 1:37); if He created the whole universe from nothing and will someday defeat all evil forever and give us a new heaven and earth--it's more than a little ludicrous to think that a single human being could generate enough bad attitude to paralyze Him. Especially since the whole human race together hasn't even figured out how to build a cost-effective automobile that runs without waste or pollution.

Still, we all love our delusions of personal grandeur. We hate to let go of them even when we mature enough to realize that faith is more than a tool for gaining earthly health and wealth; when it comes to genuine spiritual growth, we tend to assume God wants us to get rid of all our own shortcomings overnight. I, for one, know well the "guilt fallout" from doing the same wrong thing for the ten-thousandth time; the discouragement of living with a brain that seems determined to consistently steer my thoughts away from wholehearted worship and into trivial daydreams; the despair of longing for a personal "spiritual progress" yardstick to reassure me I've grown even a little in the past few months; the impatience of wanting to see a few major growth spurts right now; the frustration of not even knowing whether I'm really coming up short or simply expecting too much of myself.

Ultimately, that's where most of our problems lie: ever since Eve fell for the line about a quick bite of fruit bringing omniscience, we've expected too much of ourselves because we've considered ourselves God's equals. John 15:1-7 is worthwhile study for those of us who think we can perfect our own lives (in terms of either worldly success or spiritual maturity) with maybe a little help from God. To paraphrase: first we give ourselves to Christ and let Him cancel the eternal penalty of our sin; then we concentrate, not on making ourselves perfect, but on staying close to Christ and getting to know Him. Then He will do the work of perfecting us--providing we don't forget that we are literally helpless without Him, providing we don't unplug ourselves from our only Source of power by wandering off into self-generated attempts at "making things better." If we let our own plans and ideas usurp His place at the center of our lives, we risk becoming spiritually useless; if we make Him all that counts, then we can pray in faith and see great results. But we must never forget that "asking for whatever we wish" is to be saved for after we submit ourselves and our wishes to His authority.

We all like to think that we can find a way to put God in our debt. But since He owes us literally nothing, shouldn't we be all the more thankful that He gives us so much?

Not for our own righteous living,
Not for good deeds we have done,
But in His own love and mercy,
God sets us free through His Son.

We, who dare think ourselves worthy,
We, who dare call ourselves good,
All are the filthiest sinners--
Not one has done as we should.

Helpless to be our own saviors,
Nor can we, working alone,
Grow into Christlike perfection:
All of our strength is His own.

Even in glories eternal,
Even when sin is no more,
All of our power will be from Him,
He Who our every fault bore.

Trust Him to keep you from sinning;
Trust Him to guide all your days;
Trust Him to hold you forever--
He Who alone earns the praise!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Sticks and Stones

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me"--so goes the childhood response to taunts and name-calling. And the Bible would seem to agree: Prov. 26:2 (NIV) says, "Like a fluttering sparrow or a darting swallow, an undeserved curse does not come to rest."

Yet in the light of everyday experience, the claim that "words can never hurt" seems almost a mockery. The emotional pain of craving approval and receiving abuse is bad enough; but try telling someone who was forced out of a promising career by the fallout from a jealous colleague's slander, or who was beaten unconscious by a mob stirred up by hate speech, that "words can't do you any harm."

Perhaps the childhood chant should go (even if it spoils the rhythm): "Words alone can never hurt me." Even then, there's the caveat "unless I let them." Which is very hard not to do. Human nature wants to be liked, respected, and admired by everyone, which is why many people will do almost anything--even things they know are wrong--to avoid being criticized. Like the first-century Jews who avoided following Jesus openly for fear of being ostracized (Jn. 12:42-43), most of us "love praise from men more than praise from God."

We would do great things for the Kingdom far more often if the only words we cared about hearing (even at the cost of literal sticks and stones or worse) were the Lord's words from Mt. 25:21 and 25:23:

"Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!"

Sticks and stones may break our bones:
Words have a strength that's stranger;
Though they may not draw spurting blood,
They bulge with hidden danger.
The human fear of "what folks think"
Can make a soul grow sour
Until the lust for mortal praise
Consumes each day and hour.

Sticks and stones broke many bones
Of those who spoke for Jesus,
Who stood against opinion's tide
Proclaiming love that frees us.
Those souls who walk the way of God
And live with humble spirit
Draw angry words, but yet are blessed:
They do God's Word and hear it.

Sticks and stones may break our bones,
Or words sting hard and cruel,
If we disdain all earthly praise
To seek the Heavenly Jewel.
But when we turn our ears to Christ--
Our Lord, the Word made living--
No human power can do us harm,
For God His strength is giving.

Those who seek to save their lives,
Or even reputations,
So often trade eternal praise
For earthly commendations.
But those who live for God alone,
Though all they love be broken,
Will gain the greatest prize of all
When Earth's last words are spoken.